Ah, the good old days. When kids played outside in the dirt until the dinner bell rang, veggies came from the back garden instead of wrapped in plastic, and a tablet was something you took if you were sick.

It's a common refrain that our grandparents were raised in simpler, more natural times, before processed foods and ubiquitous screens gave us all sorts of lifestyle diseases.

But how true is that assumption? Were our grandparents really healthier than us? Or are we just romanticising a bygone era?

Your days are numbered

If we're trying to work out which generation was healthier, perhaps a good place to start is life expectancy.

This has risen in Australia pretty steadily since the turn of the 20th century.

Let's say the average ABC reader's grandparents were born roughly 100 years ago. Your grandfathers, born in about 1918, would have had a life expectancy of less than 60, and your grandmothers a little more than 60.

By contrast, you would have been born expecting to live at least another 10 years more than that, and someone born today is expected to live beyond 80.

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Having said that, life expectancy tables can be deceiving. Things like high rates of infant mortality can skew the numbers down, and if we're talking specifically about our grandparents' health, then we're assuming they lived long enough to reach adulthood and have a family.

And yes, a big contributor to our improved life expectancy over the past century has been a reduction in infant deaths. At the beginning of the 20th century, for every 1,000 babies born alive, 105 died.

Today, that death rate is down to just over 3 deaths per 1,000 live births.

But the life expectancy for older people has also increased. The increase in life expectancy for people over 65 has actually accelerated over the past 20 years. The ABS attributes this to an ageing population and improvements in social, economic and living standards.

Compared to a century ago, older people today are much more likely to die from a chronic disease than an infectious disease.

So on the life expectancy metric, we're healthier than our grandparents were.

But living for a long time isn't exactly the same as having a healthy life, is it? So let's look at some things we know are associated with good health overall, and see how they compare to our grandparents' generation and now.

What's on your plate, grandpa?

What we eat has changed over the past century, but so has where we eat and where we shop, according to Jan O'Connell, whose book A Timeline of Australian Food: From Mutton to Masterchef looks at Australian food over the past 150 years.

While many families may have had a backyard vegetable garden, and a much larger proportion of the population lived on the land and raised their own meat, O'Connell said people in the 1920s and 30s ate a fair amount of foods we would consider unhealthy today.


"Heaps of sugar, heaps of meat, lots of tea [with sugar] and bread and butter. Nobody thought of saturated fat being bad for you," she said.


In fact, during the Depression and World War II, when meat rationing came into place, "there were people writing in the newspaper saying poor people were going to be restricted to having meat just once a day instead of sausages for breakfast, meat sandwiches for lunch and meat for dinner", she said.

The early decades of the 20th century was also the era when sweets like Aeroplane jelly, Darrell Lea chocolates, Jaffas, Minties and Cherry Ripes were launched, and sugar featured heavily in cakes and biscuit recipes. But O'Connell said bought confectionery would have been a rare treat for most children.